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From ‘Gold Rush’ to ‘The Tinder Swindler’: How Raw Conquered the Doc World

It’s slightly ironic that Tinder has chosen London’s creative neighborhood of Shoreditch as a key target for its first global ad campaign, splashing some major spend on scores of bold, brightly colored billboards asserting that it all “starts with a swipe.” Although the area’s demographic — hectic, switched-on 20- and 30-somethings forever glued to their phones and laptops — would seem the perfect audience, it’s unlikely that many realize that just around the corner from the hoardings sits the company responsible for making the dating app’s most notorious swiper globally famous.

Raw, the production banner that now sits over three busy floors of an otherwise unremarkable office block on Curtain Road — once home to the U.K.’s earliest theaters (Shakespeare would perform many of his plays nearby) — had had numerous hits before The Tinder Swindler dropped on Netflix in February 2022. But the feature documentary — unraveling the shocking story of jet-setting scammer Simon Leviev and how the women he charmed (then conned out of millions) would eventually bring down his fast-living Ponzi scheme — landed like little else. Audiences racked up 166 million hours of viewing time within 28 days of it hitting the streamer, making it Netflix’s most watched doc by some margin (and Leviev an instant social media villain).

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The Tinder Swindler, which would later earn five Emmy nominations, wasn’t Raw’s first success on Netflix. Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer — another bonkers true-crime story, this time told as a doc series and the company’s debut commission from the platform — had become something of a cultural moment in 2019. And in the months following the release of Swindler, perhaps underlining Raw’s status as Netflix’s favorite creator of watercooler moments of the darker, WTF variety, it produced both The Most Hated Man on the Internet, about the efforts by anti-revenge porn activists to take down the notorious IsAnyoneUp .com website, and Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99, charting the somewhat harrowing chain of events that led to one of the most notorious music events in history.

MH370 The Plane That Disappeared
MH370: The Plane That Disappeared.

Most recently, Raw was behind the three-part MH370: The Plane That Disappeared, about the lost Malaysia Airlines flight, which amassed in excess of 100 million hours of viewing in the month following its March release, reaching Netflix’s top 10 lists in 86 countries.

But Netflix hasn’t been the only beneficiary of Raw’s uncanny ability to dig deep into wild real-life events. Gold Rush — which trails groups of amateur gold miners risking it all in the Klondike — continues to be a ratings smash for Discovery 13 years after launching, while documentary features such as 2012’s The Imposter and 2018’s Three Identical Strangers have earned numerous awards and nominations (and solid box office) for bringing nearly unbelievable stories to the big screen.

Alongside the general out-there nature of the tales being told, there’s another DNA strand that links most of these documentaries from Raw, and it’s one that company co-founder and chief creative officer Dimitri Doganis says now runs deeply through the company’s output: taking a carefully considered scripted approach to unscripted storytelling.

Raw has expanded to the big screen, producing from left the features The Imposter 2012 and Three Identical Strangers 2018.
Raw has expanded to the big screen, producing (from left) the features The Imposter (2012) and Three Identical Strangers (2018).

“We go through the same process as you would on a scripted project, thinking really rigorously about what’s our way in, who’s our protagonist, what’s the arc, what are the acts within those acts, what are the scenes, what are the beats within those scenes,” he explains. “And we figure all of that out, often before we’ve shot a single frame of interview.”

The shocking murder at the center of Don’t F**k With Cats had been heavily covered in the media, but what made the difference for Raw’s retelling was that it revolved around two amateur internet sleuths as they attempted to track down the criminal, Luka Magnotta, following their process as if it had been written as a dramatic feature. Which is what the team behind it effectively did (and what the series’ producer, Felicity Morris, would later do when she directed The Tinder Swindler).

“We have a very clear and vigorous process for how we approach those stories, and that’s, in a way, our special sauce,” notes Doganis.

The recipe for this sauce can be traced back to Raw’s very early years.

Thanks to a 15,000-pound ($19,000) development deal from Brit network Channel 4, the company (known up until recently as Raw TV) was launched in 2001 by Doganis, a freelance director who had worked in various war zones making docs for shows on the BBC and PBS. But things really started moving when Bart Layton, who had also directed for the BBC and spent some time at indie TV banner RDF, joined a few years later.

“I had tried to hire him, and he had tried to hire me, and we thought, ‘We’re doing sort of similar stuff and have similar values, let’s join up,’ ” says Layton, “and we just started hustling.”

Layton also notes that he and Doganis were among the “first generation” of filmmakers using Sony’s broadcast-quality PD150 camera, effectively making them one-man doc-making bands behind the lens.

Early business inspiration for the pair came from unscripted TV veteran Jane Root, at the time running Discovery in the U.S.

During a presentation inviting U.K. indie producers to pitch to the network, Root showed a clip of its then-new reality fishing show Deadliest Catch, explaining how Discovery was ordering 13 episodes at $500,000 each. Crucially — and why it proved to be a lightbulb moment for Doganis — she said that the development effort required to land a similar commission was “no different” than that needed to get a single, £140,000 ($174,000) feature on Channel 4’s Cutting Edge, then one of the UK’s premier TV shows for docs and one of few local pitching opportunities.

Still a very small company with fewer employees than the fingers on one hand, Raw made the U.S. — a seller’s market where, in stark contrast to the U.K., 50-plus channels were competing with one another — its target.

As it happened, they had just been putting together what would become the company’s first major show.

While on vacation in Central America, Layton met his best friend from college, who had recently been made the U.K.’s vice consul of Mexico. Late for a surf trip, his friend explained that he’d been delayed, as he’d been dealing with a “well-to-do” middle-class British couple, recently locked up in a high-security prison after being caught in transit with 16 kilos of cocaine.

“I was like, ‘That’s an insane story,’” Layton recalls. With an idea in his head, he was given a small amount by Brit network Channel 5 to put something together. A chunk of this money was immediately spent on an air conditioning unit, given to the prison governor as a bribe to let him inside to speak to the couple. Marshaling as many resources as he could — including friends in Mexico acting in reconstruction scenes — Layton made a pilot. But even at this early stage, he says there was a notion to bring an almost scripted, plot-driven narrative element to the storytelling.

“I had this idea that the way the story would be told was that you wouldn’t realize they’re in prison until the end — that you’d watch it thinking it must have resolved itself and they’re now in a comfy television studio in the U.K.,” he says. To achieve this, Layton took a backdrop into the prison cell and, right at the end of the show,  pulled the camera back to reveal that the couple was still inside and that they’d been sentenced to 10 years.

With the pilot in the bag, both Layton and Doganis headed to the U.S. as traveling salesmen to start “hawking their wares” of that and four other projects. By the time they came back, all five had been commissioned. Layton’s prison show would head to Nat Geo, and Locked Up Abroad (titled Banged Up Abroad on Channel 5 in the U.K.) became a sleeper hit.

“So we were like, ‘This is the future,’ ” says Doganis. “All U.K. companies now pitch to America all the time, but at that point they didn’t. And that gave us a real head start.”

Raw was off, and using Layton’s initial blueprint, Locked Up would soon be scaled up from a mini­series to a fully fledged series with a new episode — each focusing on different individuals incarcerated overseas — being delivered every two weeks (it’s currently on season 14).

It wasn’t too long before the company hit another rich vein.

While researching a show for the History Channel about — ironically enough — a civilization-ending pandemic, one of the Raw team was scouring survivalist forums online and came across the Hoffmans, a crew of six would-be gold miners from Oregon about to embark on an all-or-nothing trip to Alaska. Broken by the 2008 financial crash, the men — led by the charismatic Todd Hoffman — had all lost their jobs, with many in mortgage arrears, so had pooled their last bits of money to invest in a gold claim to see if they could strike it rich (despite having little experience).

“It just felt too good to be true,” says Sam Maynard, who had worked with Raw before but had recently joined full-time (he’s now Raw’s executive vp U.S. factual programming). “It was literally at the height of the recession, and had these amazing reverberations from 100 years ago.”

Having come to the realization that paper pitches were becoming obsolete and everything needed to be on tape, Maynard insisted that they “just get on a plane and shoot the shit out of these people.” So without any network deal in place, Raw — still very much in its infancy — took what Maynard describes as a “big swing” and paid for him and a small team to fly to Haines, Alaska, in the dead of winter 2008 to chronicle the prospecting efforts (and just as weather reports said four feet of snow were about to land).

Back in the warmth at Raw’s offices, a four-minute sizzle reel was painstakingly put together, one covering the Hoffmans’ backstory, the mining efforts and, once gold had been found, the all-important drama that would erupt over how to share the spoils. “Because that’s what makes gold mining so extraordinarily potent for a story,” says Maynard.

When the team took what they had to Realscreen in the U.S., a bidding war ensured, Discovery emerging victorious (Maynard says it’s then vp development and production Matthew Kelly effectively told them: “This has got our name on it, don’t talk to anyone else.”) The eventual program agreement for what would become Gold Rush was signed by Doganis on top of the flight cases as they all headed back out to shoot the series, still unsure what it was they were doing.

“They didn’t know how to gold mine, we didn’t know how to make that kind of show,” says Maynard. “Looking back at that first season, it was an extraordinary experience.”

Gold Rush is now onto its 14th season, but has also spawned numerous spinoffs and tracked the fortune-seeking exploits of various other groups of miners, turning several into household names. Without tapping too into too many metaphors, the show has been a goldmine for Discovery, ranking as the top show across all cable networks — excluding news and sports — on Friday nights among men ages 25-54.

Several seasons into Gold Rush, Raw’s relationship with Discovery was cemented when, in 2014, the network giant bought the U.K. indie outright for an undisclosed fee. Just months after the acquisition, Discovery and Liberty teamed to splash $930 million on U.K. television giant All3Media, under which Raw has operated since 2017.

At the time of the Discovery purchase, Doganis said that the deal allowed his company to “turbo-charge” its expansion into film, something that it had already made its first moves into two years earlier.

Layton had always wanted to flex his more hands-on filmmaking muscles again, and admits it usually wouldn’t make business sense for him to disappear from his duties at Raw to work on a project for a year or so. But he says from the start there had been an understanding between him and Doganis to support each other’s “creative endeavors” should the right thing come along. The Imposter would be that thing.

Like The Tinder Swindler’s Leviev, whose activities were first covered by a Norwegian tabloid newspaper (brought to Raw by co-producers AGC Studios), Layton found the tale of French confidence trickster Frédéric Bourdin — who had assumed the identities of numerous people over the years — in a Spanish magazine while on holiday.

The eventual 2012 doc — a cinematic doc-meets-dramatic retelling of the period when Bourdin had claimed to be a Texas boy who had disappeared in 1994 at the age of 13, and moved in with the boy’s family — was a phenomenal debut, bowing at Sundance to universal acclaim, selling to A&E and landing two BAFTA nominations and six British Independent Film Award nominations. Twelve years on, the film — which delivered a suspense-filled third act many critics acknowledged was as gripping as any white-knuckle thriller — and Layton says he was recently told by one doc exec that pitches constantly reference The Imposter as inspiration.

While Layton may have been away from his day-to-day work at Raw as he put The Imposter together, he claims the film ultimately helped the company, bringing “all kinds of new opportunities.”

A few years after The Imposter, and feeling there was another “itch to scratch,” he would make his second feature, this time his first foray into the (mostly) narrative world with American Animals, a true-crime heist thriller that cleverly — and somewhat uniquely — blurred the lines between fiction and truth, splicing documentary elements into the story. Not only was it Layton’s first screenplay, but it would be Raw’s first significant film production in the U.S. (and with a budget he says was 10 times that of The Imposter’s roughly $1.5 million). “It was scary, and also incredibly exciting — and also as the writer and director, you’ve not got a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

American Animals also gave an early film role to Barry Keoghan, these days a much-sought-after star following his Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning turn in The Banshees of Inisherin. Layton says he actually had the “pick of the most famous kids of that age” to play the four students at the heart of the story, with some of the biggest names around interested. But he wanted lesser-known actors whose previous work wouldn’t be a distraction. Baby-faced Keoghan was completely wrong for the role, but Layton was transfixed by his self-tape. He brought him to New York to do a chemistry test with co-star Evan Peters, by which point Keoghan had grown a “pathetic bit of stubble” to make himself look older. “And it worked — you just couldn’t take your eyes off him.”

Now close friends, Layton and Keoghan are working on another film together, part of a major focus on features — both scripted and unscripted — that forms part of the next chapter for Raw.

Upcoming projects include a true-story diamond heist doc thriller being developed with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin, which Doganis says will “play like a Saturday night movie.” (Layton says it “may end up being scripted.”) Raw is also teaming with BBC Film on a scripted feature and another real-life crime story, about a Brit teenage couple who were convicted in 2012 after forming a smash-and-grab motorbike gang that robbed nearly 50 high-end fashion boutiques in central London. Tim Wardle (who directed Three Identical Strangers — now being made into a scripted series — and exec produced Trainwreck: Woodstock 99) is set to direct. Meanwhile, Bart Layton has another scripted feature project in the works, this time based on a piece of literary IP with Brit powerhouse Working Title.

Trainwreck: Woodstock '99.
Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99.

The film with Keoghan is a passion project for the young actor, a biopic of Billy the Kid that aims to puncture the myth about the famed cowboy, delving into his complicated childhood. “It’s actually much closer to some of Barry’s own experiences with foster care and absent fathers,” notes Layton. “I think most of the stuff I tend to be interested in is always ultimately to do with identity.” The film, which may start shooting in 2024, also reunites Raw with Film4, which backed both The Imposter and American Animals — and also comes from Ireland’s Element Pictures, which worked on Keoghan starrers The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Calm With Horses.

With Amblin, Working Title and Element, Layton notes that Raw is now getting into “quite exciting relationships” with acclaimed film production companies and producers they hugely respect that previously might not have been in Raw’s orbit. “We were originally the young scrappers, but now we’re the grown-ups.”

Alongside the push into features, there’s been another shift at Raw, which Layton admits has had “a bit of a reputation for being quite male-orientated” in terms of its output, especially considering early hits such as Locked Up Abroad and Gold Rush. “And that’s something we are trying to change.”

Part of this change has been led by Liesel Evans, creative director across factual, who joined Raw in 2017 and says she’s fought to have more female directors involved and is “bringing more senior women into the company” as it expands (the office now has desks for around 140 employees, which Doganis says were “all full pre-COVID”).

Evans was hired just as the impact of streamers on the doc market was starting to blossom. Although she was initially brought on board to oversee Raw’s U.K. division — then primarily focused on U.K. broadcasters — she quickly helped cultivate Raw’s relationship with Netflix, having known its feature doc head Kate Townsend from her BBC days. Her aim now is ensuring Raw is “spreading its feelers” out elsewhere and getting commissions from the other SVOD giants.

Evans says HBO is in her sights, but she’s already landed an as-yet-unannounced three-part true-crime series on Amazon Prime (“and with an all-female team”), while later this year comes Raw’s first show with Disney+. In a collaboration with Condé Nast Entertainment, In Vogue: The 1990s is set to tell the “inside story of the fashion that defined a decade,” and comes sporting brag-worthy access to the biggest names of that world, including Anna Wintour (who also exec produces). “So when Anna calls Donatella Versace asking her to take part in our series, she says yes,” notes Evans, who pitched the show to Disney+ commissioning editor Carolyn Payne.

If In Vogue feels a well-heeled leap away from the true-crime, internet baddie, incarcerated overseas, frosty mining exploits that Raw has built its brand around, that’s the point, with Evan acknowledging that it “gets into an audience that we haven’t necessarily got to so far.” But the series will still include that essential Raw DNA, featuring an “overarching narrative” and with “revelatory” stories from “people you think you know, but hearing them speak in a different way.” There are hopes it’ll become a returning series, while Evans says she’s now in discussion with Condé Nast about other potential projects.

Amid this flurry of activity at Raw — which also has a paranormal doc series with James Wan and the series Lost Cities Revealed with Nat Geo explorer Albert Lin coming up and recently launched Eva Longoria: Searching for Mexico (a spinoff from the culinary-infused Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy) on CNN — the winds are changing in the doc sphere, which has been booming for the past half-decade. Netflix, which had transformed the market and whose thirst for unscripted content helped push budgets skyward, is now scaling back, as are others, including Disney+. CNN announced last year that it was going to stop commissioning films and series from outside the network, entirely due to rising costs.

Evans admits that it’s “concerning” but claims she’s confident in the reputation Raw has built up across what is now a hugely broad range of genres and formats.

“It’s a weird time because loads of people are pulling in their horns and budgets are shrinking,” says Doganis, who has charted several such cycles in the 22 years since he founded the company. “It’s difficult and it’s ugly for lots of people. But there’s also opportunity, and it obliges a new way of thinking and out of that comes innovation. And that’s quite exciting.”

And if anyone at Raw needs to be reminded about how exciting it can get in terms of smash-hit successes, they need only check out the giant billboards just around the corner.

A version of this story first appeared in the May 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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